After several weeks of back and forth, it seems as though Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and Boulder County will be seeing each other in court.
On Tuesday, February 14, AG Coffman filed suit against the state county over its five-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. Coffman called the suit illegal while Boulder County attorneys dismissed the claim as a waste of time.
In recent months, Colorado has become a breeding ground for the fracking debate. The state’s large liberal base has repeatedly butted heads with those hoping to extract the state’s wealth of petroleum resources. In Boulder, the most recent fight is boiling down to the legal outcome of a single question.
Should the locals control fracking in their area, or should the state oversee oil and gas developments?
A Brief History of the Moratorium
Originally imposed in February of 2012, Boulder County’s moratorium put a halt to any new drilling applications. While Boulder County does have some producing wells that were drilled and completed prior to the ban the ban has effectively curtailed any new developments for the last five years. It’s been extended or renewed at least eight times since.
Though the moratorium was initially scheduled to run through July of next year, the Boulder City Council attempted to redraft the rules to account for new developments in the oil and gas industry, specifically what Boulder County attorney Ben Pearlman referred to as the proliferation of “mega-facilities.”
Last month, however, Coffman announced that five years figuring out the rules was long enough, and if Boulder County wasn’t in compliance by February 10, she would take action on behalf of the state. When the deadline passed, Coffman was as good as her word.
What Is Boulder’s Argument?
Boulder is digging in on the claim that they should be allowed to determine their county’s own oil and gas policy moving forward. They’ve said the state is motivated by a desire to help big business, claiming that their moratorium is a straightforward assertion that individual rights should trump the will of the state.
In a statement, Boulder County said, “We are prepared to defend our right to safeguard the health, safety, and wellbeing of our constituents”
Why Is Boulder in the State’s Crosshairs?
So, what could possibly spur a state government to interfere in the matters of a city council, especially when said city council claims to be motivated by such idealistic means? It’s not a matter of oppression as Boulder officials would have one believe, it’s a matter of information.
There are actually three major reasons that oil and gas development is subject solely to state oversight. First, it’s a budget issue. Colorado’s budget for studying, implementing, and regulating oil and gas development is much higher than Boulder’s. What’s more, the state level pulls from more resources (they can tap into federal information, for example) and draws a more prominent set of experts to weigh in.
Second, with the state determining the course of oil and gas development, the development process is both more efficient and more transparent. What’s more, with each county determining their own fracking regulations, things can get kind of complicated.
Says Kim Rodell, President of Upstream Petroleum Management, “The industry is really against local control, not because they don’t want counties or cities to have a say, but because having individual rules in multiple counties is confusing, sometimes contradictory, and the layers of overarching regulatory agencies can become very complex and cumbersome.
“Oil and gas is a very technical field that requires a very specific expertise. Having the experts regulate individual industries makes perfect sense. Counties and cities do have a say through their planning departments. Local government designees are notified electronically on every oil and gas application submitted to the Commission and are allowed to comment on every application.”
Third, oil and gas minerals are privately owned by various individuals. Banning the production of these resources takes away someone else’s private property rights.
In short, the state isn’t looking for control, it’s looking for the most accurate, up-to-date info it can get, and the blunt fact is that the state is better equipped to stay on top of industry developments than any county.
Coloradans Don’t Seem Interested in Gaining Local Control
Last year, a ballot initiative was proffered in Colorado that sought to implement “The Right to a Healthy Environment”. Essentially, the ballot initiative wanted to put legislation on the books that granted local governments the right to override state law if the local government was pursuing a healthier environment.
After being moved to the petition phase, the initiative failed to generate the necessary number of signatures to earn a spot on the 2016 ballot. The implication was clear: as a whole, the people of Colorado preferred to let the state government oversee the environmental needs of the state.
Without the power of this legislation at their backs, it seems as though Boulder County doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on.